This post summarizes one of nine case studies included in CSIS’s new report, Countering Coercion in Maritime Asia: The Theory and Practice of Gray Zone Deterrence. The full case study is also available for download here. (Principal case study researcher: Jake Douglas)

On August 19, 2014, a Chinese J-11B fighter dangerously intercepted a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon patrol aircraft 135 miles east of Hainan Island. Media reports speculated that the U.S. surveillance effort was focused on China’s Yulin submarine base at nearby Hainan. U.S. officials soon divulged that this was just the latest in a string of at least four unsafe encounters since March of that year. Notably, all involved jets from a single Chinese air base, fueling debate in the Pentagon over whether the local People’s Liberation Army (PLA) commander had “gone rogue” or was acting with Beijing’s blessing.

The official U.S. version of events holds that on August 19 an armed J-11 approached the unarmed P-8. The PLA fighter proceeded to engage in a series of intimidating aerial stunts. It began by passing underneath the Poseidon three times at a range of only 100 feet. It then flew directly alongside the P-8—so close that their wingtips were less than 20 feet apart—before performing a barrel roll less than 45 feet above it. The J-11 finally “flashed past [the Poseidon’s] nose” at a 90-degree angle to expose its weapons load before returning to base. One U.S. defense official likened the encounter to a drag race between a “school bus and a Ferrari.”

The United States initially kept quiet about the incident in order to give Beijing an opportunity to apologize privately, but for three days China’s foreign and defense ministries offered no explanation. At this point, senior U.S. officials decide to “name and shame” to bring public censure upon the aggressive actions of the Chinese pilot.

On August 22, the White House and Department of Defense (DOD) revealed the encounter to the public and distributed photographs taken during the intercept. A Pentagon spokesperson described the confrontation in depth, criticizing China’s “unacceptable” and “unprofessional” behavior. DOD also released previously undisclosed information about the earlier unsafe intercepts. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes and others cautioned that repeated provocations could undermine recent efforts to build stable military-to-military relations.

Chinese officials quickly responded to this public diplomacy. On August 23, a Ministry of National Defense (MND) spokesperson actually denied the United States’ description of the factual details of the incident. The ministry claimed that the J-11 had simply made a “regular identification and verification” in a “professional operation” and had “kept the jet… a safe distance [from] the U.S. aircraft.” More fundamentally, though, it blamed “U.S. massive and frequent close-in surveillance of China” as the root cause of these confrontations. Beijing urged Washington to “abide by international law and international practice” and begin working to “reduce and finally stop” its reconnaissance missions.

U.S. and Chinese defense leaders met in Washington on August 26 to 27 for prescheduled talks on bilateral rules of behavior for air and sea encounters. Both sides used the opportunity to promote their view of the incident. DOD affirmed that the United States would “continue to fly in international airspace the way we’ve been,” while Chinese MND sources threatened to freeze the ongoing maritime negotiations if the United States did not stop narrowly focusing on “technical issues” like distance between aircraft while ignoring the broader policy context of persistent U.S. surveillance.

Beijing also contradicted the U.S. State Department’s claim that the reconnaissance program was transparent and that China had been “made aware” of U.S. plans beforehand. Instead, the defense ministry said Washington had issued no such notification. Finally, it warned that China would keep “strictly monitoring” these flights and adopt measures to “safeguard the air and sea security of our country,” possibly including a Chinese air defense identification zone in the South China Sea. These mutual recriminations continued through a visit to Beijing by the U.S. national security adviser, Susan Rice, during which she met with China’s top military leaders.

By late September, however, the acrimony over the “Top Gun” incident had largely dissipated. Admiral Samuel Locklear of U.S. Pacific Command publicly framed the affair as an “outlier” compared to how “safely and professionally” the PLA conducts the “vast majority” of its interceptions. Beijing also reportedly assured Washington in private that this kind of assertive behavior would not happen again. In November, U.S. and Chinese leaders signed two major confidence-building agreements, followed the next year by an additional annex for air-to-air encounters. Close encounters have still occurred since then, but they do not appear to have been as dangerous and provocative as the “Top Gun” incident.

As with the 2009 Impeccable incident, this episode shows that U.S. operations near China are a recurrent flashpoint between Washington and Beijing. Under the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, the United States maintains that it is fully entitled to conduct aerial reconnaissance up to 12 nautical miles from China’s coast. Beijing, on the other hand, often argues that these operations are illegal. Legal disputes notwithstanding, what the United States views as essential for its regional defense needs China tends to see as a threat to its national security. The two countries will no doubt continue to wrangle over the permissibility of U.S. “close-in” surveillance in the future.

This episode suggests four broader implications for military confrontations along China’s maritime periphery:

  • First, China rejected the U.S. account of the factual details of the intercept (unlike in the Impeccable case). This may have been a symptom of Beijing’s still-poor crisis management—also on display during the 2001 EP-3 incident, when the PLA relayed erroneous reports about the professionalism of Chinese pilots to civilian officials.
  • Second, three degrees of intentionality were possible in this and other incidents: a rogue operator, a rogue commander or unit, or direct orders from the central leadership. Intelligence and time constraints during a crisis complicate judgments about China’s intentions and the appropriate U.S. response.
  • Third, Washington assessed that Beijing did not directly order the intercept, and thus did not adopt a serious military response like it did with the Impeccable. U.S. officials may also have wished to avoid the logistically onerous task of sustaining fighter escorts far from U.S. bases.
  • Fourth, these risky Chinese activities subsided after they became public and demonstrated the risk of inadvertent escalation. However, it remains to be seen whether the two countries will honor their new 2014 and 2015 commitments.

Timeline

For more articles in this series, please visit our Countering Coercion in Maritime Asia Report page.

About Michael Green

Michael Jonathan Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at CSIS and an associate professor at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He served on the staff of the National Security Council (NSC) from 2001 through 2005, first as director for Asian affairs, and then as special assistant to the president for national security affairs and senior director for Asia.

About Kathleen Hicks

Kathleen Hicks is senior vice president, Henry A. Kissinger Chair, and director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

About Zack Cooper

Zack Cooper is a senior fellow for Asian security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He previously served on staff at the National Security Council and in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He received a B.A. from Stanford University and an M.P.A., M.A., and Ph.D. from Princeton University.

About John Schaus

John Schaus is a fellow in the CSIS International Security Program, where he focuses on defense industry and Asia security challenges. His research areas include Asia-Pacific security issues and U.S. defense policy and industry. Prior to rejoining CSIS in July 2014, he worked in the Office of Asian and Pacific Security Affairs within the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

About Jake Douglas

Jake Douglas is a research assistant with the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.